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Longtime Merle Haggard and the Strangers Member Don Markham Dead at 85

don markham dead dies
James Curtis via YouTube

One of country music’s most versatile and highly-regarded musicians has died. Don Markham, who played with Merle Haggard from 1974 until his retirement in 2013, died Friday (Feb. 24) in Oildale, Calif., at the age of 85.

Markham was a multi-instrumentalist and horn player who came up through pop and jazz, but changed course when the music scene in Bakersfield, Calif., where he worked, began to become influential in country music.

“I was starting to move around and thinking about going to work in country music,” Markham said in an interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville in 2012, during the opening of an exhibit devoted to the Bakersfield Sound (quote via Bakersfield.com).

“It seemed like in Bakersfield not a lot was going on with what I played in pop and jazz. The country people were so much nicer and appreciative of you playing for them than other kinds of music that I just fell in love with it.”

He wound up working with many of the formative artists who were the architects of that sound, including Buck Owens, but his long career with Haggard came about by happenstance when Haggard and his band, the legendary Strangers, were headed back to Bakersfield after a tour and pulled into a truck stop in New Mexico. A few minutes later, Johnny Paycheck’s bus pulled into the same truck stop.

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Markham was working in Paycheck’s band at the time, and he was having serious problems with the situation, which reportedly included volatile confrontations between some of Paycheck’s brothers and band members. Seeing Haggard, Markham walked over to him and asked him for a job on the spot, and when Haggard promptly agreed, he got on Haggard’s bus and drove away from the truck stop with him.

He performed with Haggard for decades, until losing some of his teeth and generally declining health led to him leaving the road permanently in 2013. He made a unique contribution to Haggard’s music and also became one of his closest longtime friends.

“He could play anything,” Markham’s friend and fellow horn player Digger Helm tells Bakersfield.com. “He could play country, he could play jazz, he could play Dixieland, he could play rock. He played it all and could play saxophone, trumpet, bass, keyboards, probably guitar. He’d come in, pick up a horn and he was off and running, doing a brilliant solo. Then he’d put the horn down and walk off the stage like it was nothing, while we were still playing.”

“Don has played on every recording I’ve made since 1974, every single release,” Haggard said at the Hall of Fame Bakersfield exhibit opening in 2012.  “I’ve had different guitar players, and different musicians change around, but he’s been on every one of them. … It just was a little different and I liked it that way. I think Don was glad I liked it that way.”

Don Markham was preceded in death by his wife, Wanda, daughter Kathleen and grandson Anthony. He is survived by daughters Marilyn and Carla, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. No cause of death has been reported.

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